Friday, July 11, 2008

Refugees and the Right to Work

A heartening story from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) this week highlights the value of empowering refugees by providing them with the opportunity to work, rather than warehousing them in camps. In the words of Merrill Smith, who brought the term into popular use in 2004, "warehousing is the practice of keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness, and dependency—their lives on indefinite hold—in violation of their basic rights under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention." For many refugees, the ongoing violence in their homeland makes return an impossibility (think Colombia, Myanmar, Somalia), yet many of the countries in which they seek refuge detain them in camps for five, ten, even twenty years. These refugees, prohibited from legally working in their host state, are reduced to dependency on handouts from humanitarian organizations. Even worse, security in these refugee camps is minimal, and refugees, particularly women, are at risk of robbery, sexual assault, and other forms of violence. Further complicating matters, impoverished local populations may become resentful of special privileges awarded to these refugees who are guests in their countries if the same benefits aren't extended to the native-born. We saw earlier this year in South Africa the tragic consequences that high unemployment and rampant xenophobia can bring to immigrant populations. Thus the story of refugees in Jamaica growing vegetables in a community garden hit a high, if perhaps utopian note, combatting rising food prices and anti-immigrant sentiment in one neat package. The solution may not be so simple in other nations, but the idea that refugee empowerment and local development can be linked should appeal to both the human rights activist and the economist in all of us. (photo credit UNHCR/G.O'Hara)

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